New EU car rules aim to stop Dieselgate 2
Almost exactly five years after the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal, new EU rules go into effect Tuesday giving Brussels the weapons that are supposed to make it much more difficult for carmakers to cheat on vehicle emissions results.
“Europeans rightly expect to drive the cleanest and safest cars,” Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said in a statement. “That presupposes the strictest controls of cars placed on the market and circulating on our roads. It also requires real enforcement and oversight at European level.”
The Dieselgate scandal highlighted the weakness of Europe’s rule enforcement system. The problem was discovered by U.S. authorities, who found so-called defeat devices in VW diesel-powered cars in September 2015, which made them appear cleaner than they really were.
The ensuing scandal covered 11.5 million vehicles sold worldwide by numerous VW brands. Other carmakers were also found to have problems with emissions regulations.
The Commission had already been working on an update of type approval rules when the scandal broke, but Dieselgate helped push through new powers for Brussels.
The new rules, finalized in 2018, give the Commission the right to carry out compliance checks on vehicles, order bloc-wide model recalls and slap fines of €30,000 per car on cheating producers. The EU’s science wing, the Joint Research Centre, has spent €7 million on two new testing facilities that will perform snap checks, a Commission official said.
But member countries remain in the driver’s seat.
It’s still unclear how many cars the Commission will try to test. National car approval agencies will only be reviewed by other similar agencies rather than by EU regulators.
“The Commission can check cars and fine carmakers,” said Julia Poliscanova, from Transport & Environment, an NGO. “But it cannot control or have a say in the work of national authorities — so can’t ensure they all test and check to the equally high standard.”
“Especially with EU emission rules getting stricter and software becoming smarter, the opportunities to game regulations only increase,” she said.
Fierce lobbying in 2017 ruled out creating a new EU agency to patrol carmakers. Instead, national authorities will have to carry out a verification check on one in 40,000 newly registered cars — corresponding to 447 checks under 2019 sales — and have to report back to Brussels on what they are doing.
That doesn’t change Europe’s decentralized system of vehicle approval, under which authorities in countries such as Luxembourg are crucial in clearing models for sale. In 2016, the European Commission started infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Spain and the U.K. as they had “disregarded EU vehicle type approval rules” and failed to “set up penalties systems to deter car manufacturers from violating car emissions legislation, or not applying such sanctions where a breach of law has occurred.”
“The system functions as well as its weakest link,” the official said.
Efforts to avoid another consumer scandal aren’t just down to car approval rules, however. The EU has also completely reformed its emission standards to make sure values are more representative of real driving conditions instead of relying on labs where carmakers were able to game the system.
A new consumer rights framework also offers disgruntled motorists a more robust route to seek compensation in any future cheating scandal — adding further deterrence to carmakers thinking of cheating.
“All this has huge potential to limit and prevent the kind of scandals we had five years ago,” the EU official said.